Two Trains Running. Pantheon Books; 2005; 112 pages; $25.
FROM THE DUST JACKET: Electrifying, compelling, and ultimately terrifying, Two Trains Running is a galvanizing evocation of that moment in our history when the violent forces that would determine America's future were just beginning to roil below the surface.
Once a devastated mill town, by 1959 Locke City has established itself as a thriving center of vice tourism. The city is controlled by boss Royal Beaumont, who took it by force many years ago and has held it against all comers since.
Now his domain is being threatened by an invading crime syndicate. But in a town where crime and politics are virtually indivisible, there are other players awaiting their turn onstage. Emmett Till's lynching has inflamed a nascent black revolutionary movement. A neo-Nazi organization is preparing for a race war. Juvenile gangs are locked in a death struggle over useless pieces of "turf." And some shadowy group is supplying them all with weapons. With an IRA unit and a Mafia family also vying for local supremacy, it's no surprise that the whole town is under FBI surveillance. But that agency is being watched, too.
Beaumont ups the ante by importing a hired killer, Walker Dett, a master tactician whose trademark is wholesale destruction. But there are a number of wild cards in this game, including Jimmy Procter, an investigative reporter whose tools include stealth, favor-trading, and blackmail, and Sherman Layne, the one clean Locke City cop, whose informants range from an obsessed "watcher" who patrols the edge of the forest, where cars park for only one reason, to the madam of the county's most expensive bordello. But Layne is guarding a secret of his own, one that could destroy more than his career. Even the most innocent are drawn into the ultimate-stakes game -- like Tussy Chambers, the beautiful waitress whose mystically deep connection with Walker Dett might inadvertently ignite the whole combustible mix.
In a stunning departure from his usual territory, Andrew Vachss gives us a masterful novel that is also an epic story of postwar America. Not since Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest has there been as searing a portrait of corruption in a small town. This is Vachss's most ambitious, innovative, and explosive work yet.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
Publishers Weekly: Vachss's latest, set in 1959, leaves recurring character Burke behind to explore the teeming, clannish, race-driven underside of American politics. The Southern town of Locke City, at the mountainous foot of the rust belt, has become the vice-driven fief of one Royal Beaumont, a wheelchair-bound "hillbilly" who indulges in casual incest and rules the town by force. When the New York Mafia tries to cut in on the action, Beaumont fights back, determined to protect his stake -- and the town's racial composition, especially with a stealthy local black militant cell gaining in strength. Michael Shalare's Irish mob arrives and proposes a truce on the grounds that once "our man" Kennedy gets in, the Italians will be "told" to leave, and racial as well as monetary order will be preserved. The book is broken by episodic bursts of dialogue with time-stamp headings ("1959 October 04 Sunday 20:46")... The pace is good and the plot is riveting.
Kirkus Reviews: There's plot and counterplot as hard guys maneuver for position and form unlikely alliances.... Dark, violent, blood-drenched, page-turning.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Andrew Vachss is the author of many novels and of two collections of short stories. He has written for Parade, Antaeus, Esquire, Playboy, and The New York Times, among other publications. He divides his time between New York City and the Pacific Northwest.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: "The first question everybody is going to ask about the new book is, 'Where is Burke and why is Burke not in Two Trains Running'?"
"I don't know how to respond to that question," Mr. Vachss said. "I don't have an obligation to produce Burke novels on any regular basis. There are other things that I want to do, and Burke isn't a suitable vehicle to do them. It's not any more complicated than that. In order to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish with this book, a Burke book isn't the right tool for the job. There will be more Burke books. It isn't as if I had to choose between the two. I've actually been working on this book for years and years and years, right through the Burke books."
Two Trains Running begins on September 28, 1959, at 9:22 in the evening and ends on October 12, 1959, at 9:22 in the evening."
"It's literally 14 days."
"How did you happen to set the book in this way?"
"The only way to do what I wanted to do was to be a journalist, so that I'm giving you surveillance logs." Mr. Vachss, who has written elsewhere that he has "always regarded [him]self more as a journalist than a novelist," explained that these "logs" allowed him to compress the ongoing action, or acts, leaving "no rest" between one act and the next. "You don't have that leaden exposition; it's all happening at the same time, so that if you go from one set of characters speaking to another set of characters speaking, the time lapse between them is where the third set of characters could be speaking. So you get the sense that it's all happening at the same time. Without that I think it wouldn't have worked. Because you would have had to fill in too many gaps."
"You would have had to write too many green trees and too many long and winding roads."
"I also would have had to account for time, because there were so many things set in motion, that if you let two or three months go by, you'd have to resolve all those things. There are many, many, many things intentionally not resolved in this book. You're supposed to be left with the sense of on-rushing events."
"This book takes a good reader. The more experienced a reader you are, the better this book 'reads' for you."
"I couldn't agree more. But I wrote it in two ways. It's a fast-rushing river. And if you want to read it like it's some damn movie, you can do that. Of course, you miss the undercurrent, and the undercurrent is what's driving the river. If you're willing to make the investment, there's a lot more there for you. But I think it more rewards experienced and astute readers than it requires it.
"They did an audio book of it. To do the audio book, they had to reduce this book by two-thirds. So they're throwing out entire plots, and yet when you hear the whole script, you realize its purpose. It can work that way. So obviously I hope everybody reads the book twice. I really do. But I don't think if they don't, they get nothing. I just don't think they get the full meal."
"There's a point, early in the book, when the reader seems to enter the book. It's that 'Looking Glass' experience -- you turn around and you're in the action."
"That's why there are no judgments made in the narration. And no adjectives; physical descriptions, sure, but it doesn't say 'Rufus was a good-hearted person.' There's nothing like that. You can make up your own mind, so wherever you choose to enter this book, my hope is that you enter it as part of the surveillance team."
"The surveillance business is wonderful."
"It's wonderful if people get it."
"One thing that you do in all your novels is that you get the details right. If the gun is supposed to shoot an elephant, you bring the elephant-shooting gun."
"I do. But that's much more a matter of experience. You want to do it right in a book like this. I'm desperately trying to make the reader rethink the history that he or she's been taught. What you're doing is this: taking known historical fact, of which there's no dispute, and historical fact that should be known, but in fact, largely isn't, and you're blending them in a way that, if I did it right, you come up with a plausible explanation. So, if you look at the Al Capone thing, it would have served the federal government, specifically the FBI, very poorly had Al Capone been gunned down or stabbed to death in prison."
"Capone would have been another mythological, legendary-status gangster, who lived fast and died young. Capone humiliated them so many times. He humiliated them in the Cook County Jail, and he absolutely humiliated them when he was sent to Atlanta, because the guards were working for them. He had what he wanted. He had chateaubriand in jail. They needed a way for him to come down that would absolutely make of him a public mockery. Most think when Al Capone was released from prison he was in his 60s. He was 40. That's when he was released from prison."
"And he went to Florida?"
"It didn't matter where he went, because the point is, if he hadn't come out of prison with syphilis, he would have stepped right back into a leadership role. But now, watching him as this battling old man, this incontinent, helpless human, the FBI got much more what it wanted. So if you take that, and you take the fact that there certainly was a Tuskegee Experiment [the infamous syphilis experiment conducted by the federal government on Southern blacks], it can make you wonder. But, again, do you think the average person reading this book is going to know that? No."
"They're not going to know who Emmett Till is; they're going to think Emmett Till is a fictional character."
"Why did you think about Emmett Till?"
"I never stop thinking about Emmett Till, that's why. I remember when I was just a couple of years younger than he was. I remember it hitting me like a punch in the heart. First, I didn't believe it. And then as I got older, of course, the William Bradford Huie story came out. I read that, and I've never forgotten it. Not to this day. But I never believed that those two humanoids were the only people involved in that boy's killing. So this is my chance to say it."
"When you first learned that Emmett Till had been murdered and how, what was the response of the grown-up world around you?"
"There was no grown-up world because in a culture where there's no world, there's just a million worlds. Blacks reacted differently than whites. Upper-middle-class intellectual whites reacted differently than working-class whites, you see? There just
wasn't a universal reaction to it. When you have a New York politician getting outraged about a kid being lynched in Mississippi, you understand that he's pandering to a black constituency in New York.
"What I want people to do when they read the book is go, 'How can you make this crap up?' And then I want people to do a little bit of looking. And then they're going to go, 'Hmm, wait a minute, if this is true and that's true -- maybe?' You see?"
"Two Trains Running certainly will make readers interested in the validity of the history that they've been taught in school."
"That's exactly what I want to do. Because to me, as far as I'm concerned, history that is available publicly is like trying to convince a Cherokee that Columbus discovered America. It's really that gross. I think that I've been proven right, long before the book came out. Look at the recent revelations about the Bush Administration literally owning press people.
"And it's not just this administration. One of the things that I'm most bitter about is anything to do with African genocide, having seen it firsthand. Rwanda was never called genocide by the Clinton Administration. One of the points of this book is that it's not Republicans and Democrats. It's rulers and ruled."
"It's class more than color."
"It's absolutely class more than color. And it's a microcosm for what happens internationally. If you can get tribalism to run amok that's how -- in Nigeria, for instance -- you sit there and reap the oil.
"What I really hope out of this book is people will read it and say, 'You know, it's so outrageous.' And then a couple of things will hit them that they know somewhere dimly in their minds are actually facts. And they'll say, 'Hmmm.' And they'll look and they'll look and they'll look. Because I've constructed completely plausible scenarios that I'm not expecting people to buy. That's not my interest. I'm expecting it to motivate people to go and take a closer scrutiny than they ever did. That's why this whole book is my ode to journalism.
"I believe journalism is in rot, not even decline. And so by making not a journalist so much as journalism the hero of the book and how journalism is the only thing that really stands between us and the vanishing of democracy, I really said what I wanted to say."
On the website www.twotrainsrunning.com, Mr. Vachss writes, "Ultimately, Two Trains is my tribute to the one faithful force for progressive social change, the one reliable guardian of democracy: investigative journalism. For any journalist worthy of the name, the quest for truth is the ultimate pilgrimage. So, for me, the success of this book will be measured not only by how many questions it raises, but by how many questioners it creates."
Mr. Vachss went on to talk about Internet journalism. "In the age of Internet journalism," he said, "you can create fact in seven or eight minutes. Because it's transmutated after that, and you can never trace it back to its original source."
As for history as history often is written today, Mr. Vachss said, "I've got a very good illustration. I was contacted recently by an historian. This historian is writing an account of a place and time where I was a player, which was an organizing effort in Lake County, Indiana, when I worked for Saul Alinsky.
"The historian writes to me, 'I left the region and the Calumet Community Congress, which was our founding event, to become the executive director of the National Center for Urban Ethnic Affairs. Did we ever meet or did we just miss each other?' He knows I was there. Everybody knows I was. He continues, 'I'm now writing my memoirs and I've got a grant, blah, blah, blah.'
"So I wrote back, 'I entered the Lake County Region' -- and I explained how I got there -- 'to work in October of 1970, an experience which taught me a great deal about the roots of the White Power Movement and produced friendships which endure to this day. To the best of my knowledge, our paths never crossed.' Okay.
"Here's his answer: 'I'm surprised that you have viewed the Calumet Community Congress as part of the White Power Movement.' So, I write back and I said, 'Where did you get that I viewed the Calumet Community Congress as part of the White Power Movement? What I said was that the experience of working in Lake County at the time taught me a great deal about the roots of the White Power Movement and it did. I chose to work with groups who had not previously received any attention from the organizers. They included, but were not limited to, people involved with the American Independent Party. One of the many things I learned was that some folks who would have then voted for Robert Kennedy had he lived to be a candidate were now backing George Wallace. Any "messages" I got were not a matter of my interpretation. I am a good listener.'
"Didn't hear from him again. But the point is, I never said anything that could be remotely construed as 'The Calumet Community Congress was part of the White Power Movement.'
"He then morphs what I said, attempts to lecture me about it, putting me in a confirm-or-deny position, because if I don't respond as I did, when he writes his stinking little history book, he's going to have me saying that."
Mr. Vachss, I said, "gets a lot of this stuff."
He agreed. "I can give you another example, which is just disgusting. An article entitled 'Modern-Day Slavery,' and it's published in the Socialist Worker, blah, blah, blah, right? Okay. Quote, 'If this were an isolated incident it would be terrifying enough, you know, poor little Mary Jones, but it isn't isolated. Some half a million children have been forced into prostitution in Brazil alone, according to the estimate of U.S. lawyer Andrew Vachss.' A letter was written to the editor that said, 'This reporter never spoke to me. I have never spoken on the subject of the traffic of children in Brazil in my entire life and know nothing about it. Your attribution is a lie, your quote is a lie, and your fact is a lie.' Never got an answer."
"So that what we now call 'history,' " I suggested, "has begun to accrue in this way."
"Well, that's my point, and that's why I wrote this book. Because what happens is people cite what they see on the Internet, then they post it to newsgroups, then other people repeat it."
"It's oral history gone amok."
"If you want to use the proper term for it, the term I always use is 'The unauthenticated oral history.' Because oral history means 'If you're lucky enough to talk to somebody whose grandfather had been a slave and told him about it, there's an authentication you can follow if you know that in fact his grandfather was a slave.' Right? But if you're going to make a completely uncredentialed person into your source, that's not oral history. And that's what happens all the time.
"People lie. I'm still listed as a war criminal on the Nigerian Registry. And there are people who will tell you with a straight face that I served there [in what was Biafra] as a mercenary. Well, what am I going to do? Ask them to turn over their files? People don't source, and they don't authenticate; they don't fact check, and they don't confirm. They don't do those things.
"You know how they're always talking about that 'window of opportunity'? Well, I'm a working-class boy. I know that whatever window of opportunity exists, I don't own the building, so you could sit around your whole life waiting for that window to open up, or you could throw a brick through it. That's what this book is -- to me anyway. My attempt to do that."
I asked about the title.
"The title is from an old blues song. The original connection was to the Underground Railroad. The two trains are the difference between a river and the undercurrent. The truth is you're watching the river, but it's the undercurrent that's driving it. So the two trains, hence the cover, where you see the car lurking beneath the bridge as the train goes by. The train never sees the car, but the car sees the train. So that's why there are two trains running; they're always running is what I'm saying."
"Do I dare ask you about why, after almost 15 years with Knopf, you changed publishers and went to Pantheon?"
"I believe this was the right horse for the course. I believe Pantheon is a wonderful opportunity for me, and I'm excited about all that it offers, and I believe it was exactly the right house for this book."
"Your dedicated website -- www.vachss.com -- receives two million hits per year. That's amazing."
Mr. Vachss did not disagree. "That's not hits, but visits, about 175,000 a day. It's just an enormous amount of traffic from all over the world." (Two Trains Running also has a dedicated website -- www.twotrainsrunning.com.)
I said, "It strikes me that most of us are just worker bees. And most people work hard and simply don't have the energy left to find out what is happening to them."
Mr. Vachss disagreed. "They've got the energy, it's just that we've lost the constituency. In other words, there's a huge number of people in this country who were absolutely vehement about the idea that they'd been abducted by aliens. There's a tremendous number of people who actually believe that there's an alien presence that we're being watched by, and you cannot shake their convictions. But these are the same people who won't question a history book. So, okay.
"The alien thing satisfies needs within them that questioning history would not. It's like the karma people. I got into a really nasty exchange with somebody who was talking about karma. I said, 'Do you know the original translation of the word "karma"? Do you know what it means?' He said, 'No.' I said, 'It means bullshit.' And he said, 'What?!'
"[Karma people are] basically saying that everybody who's raped, everybody who's tortured, everybody who's killed, everybody who's got AIDS, they somehow earned that in a previous life.
"But the only question to ask if you're an intelligent human being is, 'Who profits?' If you don't ask who profits by a belief, by a value system, then you don't understand it. So who profits by the idea of karma? Obviously the guy in the castle, not the peasant.
"All it is, is a complete abdication of responsibility. If it's all down to karma, what's with effort? But it's comforting, because it takes no effort. All these belief systems, if you buy into them, you no longer have to do anything. All you have to do is be. You are what you do, and if what you do is nothing, that's what you are. Nothing."